GRAAT On-Line - Book Reviews

George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, and Lois More Overbeck (Editors), The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1941-1956 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).  £30.00, 886 pages, ISBN: 9780521867948 —  Gerardo Del Guercio, Royal Military College of Canada, St-Jean.

Editors George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn, and Lois More Overbeck’s The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1941-1956 is perhaps the most detailed account of Beckett’s correspondences from this period in his life. Although Beckett is known primarily as being among the most important twentieth century playwrights with dramas like Waiting for Godot, and Endgame, critics have praised his novels Watt and Murphy as being amid the most innovative modern narratives. Throughout this review I will explore the publication of Beckett’s Watt and Murphy to demonstrate the struggles and joys that Beckett experienced during these years. The review will also detail several correspondences Beckett had as well as his editorial work. This collection has a balanced selection of letters written in French and English. The editor’s decision to preserve the letters in their original languages is an excellent one because it retains the mixed French and English complexion of Samuel Beckett’s life and is also one of many reasons why The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1941-1956 makes a vital contribution to any serious research.

In a 1946 letter to George Reavey of London, Beckett wrote about a vacancy he discovered in the Irish Times. The position was for “an editorial vacancy on the staff of the RGDATA (Retail Grocery Dairy and Allied Trades-Association) Review at £300 per an” [29]. The salary was a competitive one and Beckett could earn an income while writing and publishing his works. Beckett saw the RGDATA as an opportunity to gain experience in journalism. Earlier in his letter Samuel Beckett described the crowded conditions tourists were creating in Paris. The city was “lousy with guzzling tourists” and the trains and taxis difficult to board with 1,500 travellers onboard trains with maximum capacities of 1,000. Shortly before Easter Beckett and Reavey discussed what to do with Beckett’s new novel, Watt. Beckett’s character Ernest Louit was among many satirical digs at Ireland found in the book. Other aspects include the familiar south Dublin locale and respectable citizenry of the novel's opening, Dum Spiro, editor of the Catholic magazine Crux and a connoisseur of ambiguous theological conundra, and Beckett's frustration at the outlawing on contraception in the Irish Free State. The novel addressed issues found in many other of Samuel Beckett’s great works.

On June 19 th 1946 Beckett wrote once again to George Reavey with respects to Watt. The letter detailed not only his experience with the manuscript at Methuens, but also with his French translation of Murphy. The letter mentions that he had still not seen Vivian Mercier’s essay on Irish censorship “Letter from Ireland II” published in Horizon 13.76 (April 1946), which mentioned Murphy. Beckett’s first published novel was written in English and published in London in 1938. He later translated the book into French and published it in France in 1947. The novel tells the comical but sad life of Murphy in London as he tries to establish a home and to accumulate enough wealth for his future bride to join him.  The June 19 th 1946 letter recounts Beckett’s récrit of Murphy that was to appear in the July Temps Modernes. The apprehension that Beckett had was that the second half would not be “cleaned up in time” [35] for the next issue of Temps Modernes. The French Murphy exemplifies Beckett as a self-translator.

The November 18 th 1947 letter from Samuel Beckett to George Reavey examines the French publication of Murphy. At this time Beckett was working on nothing in English, but he states that “Murphy is out in French” [64]. The translation was ultimately a failure that was badly interpreted and “not worth reading ... [t]he edition is in a bad way and there are many bankruptcies all over the place [65-6; Letter to Thomas MacGreevy]. The year 1947 was a very hard one for Beckett who earlier expressed to George Reavey that “[t]he annual struggle against cold & restrictions has well begun. Things here get worse daily. I expect there will be some trouble before the end of winter, pitchforks versus [? Gilda]” [64].  Furthermore, Hamish Hamilton sat on Watt for six months and later expressed fear toward publishing the book. The two letters I just analyzed demonstrate the endurance Samuel Beckett exemplified in his life to establish himself as a canonical literary persona.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett: 1941-1956  is perhaps the most complete collection of letters from these years in Beckett’s life. Readers of twentieth century English literature will enjoy this important scholarly work for its clearly detailed and explained letters and notes. The letters are listed in chronological order so as to make the reader’s analyses of the text a well guided experience into the correspondences of Samuel Beckett’s life from 1941-1956. Readers are well advised to read the other three volumes in the Cambridge University Press series on Samuel Beckett.

© 2012 Gerardo Del Guercio & GRAAT On-Line